Muslims and Media Images: News vs Views: Review by Salman Khurshid

Muslims and Media Images: News versus Views

Edited by Ather Farouqui

Pages: XIV 354

Published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi (2009)

Review published in the IIC Journal, quarterly magazine of India International Centre, New Delhi, summer 2009, Volume 36, Number 1, pp 180-184

By Salman Khurshid

The question of the Muslim identity is indeed complex and in India it is further complicated by the diversity of Indian society and the large Muslim population. Despite the fact that Muslims form one-fifth of the world’s population, their identity is shaped more by regional than pan-Islamic factors. Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations appears even more irrelevant in the Indian context because it entirely ignores variations not only within religions, but also among castes and sub-castes—virtually autonomous entities—without which little is possible by way of social analysis in .

9/11 has so crowded the Western media with negative images of this community that the Muslim question is inevitably accorded lopsided treatment. The Indian story has a special homegrown twist. Mainstream English media is now the dominant medium, where Muslim-controlled media houses are virtually non-existent. In principle, the role of the media in depicting reality is invaluable in the formation of public opinion, but this is mere rhetoric if we carefully examine the role and impact of the Indian media. In the case of Muslims in , the media has repeatedly stressed the reality of bomb blasts, flag burning, misconduct of Muslim fathers-in-law, and the quintessential mullahs and their fatwas. With regard to actual changes, or the need for these changes (rather, transformation), in Muslim society, the Indian media has done precious little. The liberal argument, on the other hand, is that the media has actively aided in the alienation of the community and created cynicism about the existence of plurality. Both arguments are extremely complex and multidimensional, and the book under review examines their various strands.

The volume explores the shabby image of Muslims in the media from the international as well as domestic perspective in 19 stimulating articles. Dr. Ather Farouqui, a Marxist and former member of the CPI, has worked tirelessly on this subject for some years now. This book, though an edited volume, sets forth the views of experts, sociologists, journalists and intellectuals from around the globe, reflecting the editor’s determination to engage serious minds on a very sombre and complicated issue that has always been oversimplified, if at all discussed. The Introduction to the volume is exceptionally blunt and borders on the blasphemous. However, it displays a deep understanding of Islamic history, which allows the editor to touch upon many contentious issues without ever actually crossing the line.

Among other matters, the editor has examined the causes of animosity against the Muslims not as a new phenomenon, but as a stubborn relic of history. Citing anti-Muslim sentiments from renaissance Europe to the Huntington dogma of modern times, Farouqui has argued for and against the opinion that the majority of the world populace holds about the Muslim community. In the best traditions of self-critical intellectualism, he has also pinpointed the ills that plague this community and the causes of its stagnation.

The book has been divided into sections to better facilitate an understanding of the lines along which the Islamophobia debate has proceeded. The primary focus in the first section is on the English media, with articles by some veteran journalists and intellectuals such as Vinod Mehta, Siddharth Varadarajan, Rajni Kothari, Kuldip Nayar, Mrinal Pande, Howard Brasted and Chandan Mitra.

‘Muslims and Media Images: Where Things went Wrong’ by Vinod Mehta examines the principal reasons for distorted Muslim images in the Indian media without seeking to apportion blame. Mehta argues that there is a lack of understanding among Muslims of India about the media in and examines where Indian Muslims stand in the common civic space of in 2006. He asserts that the media is a business like any other and can be equated with selling soap or ice cream. I would rank Mehta’s essay as one of the best-ever writings on the media-related problems faced by Indian Muslims. Other essays in this section also reflect the lack of understanding among Muslims about the media and what it can do for them. The truth is that widespread illiteracy, underdevelopment and an excessive dependence on theology have shaped the common Muslim psyche, which is the root cause of their remaining on the fringes. Many admirers of Siddharth Varadarajan will be disappointed with some parts of his essay which is on the whole a good piece but lacks consistency. Paradoxically, considering his openly rightist leanings, Chandan Mitra’s essay is a remarkably perceptive one.

Part Two of the book incorporates observations by the late K.M.A. Munim, Sabyasachi, Charles J. Borges, Dagmar Markova, Estelle Dryland and Susan B. Maitra about the world that surrounds Muslims and their relationship with other peoples. The general ignorance about Muslims and their stereotypical images in the press the world over are held responsible for the emerging clash between Muslims and others. Maitra, in particular, describes the press as the ‘handmaiden in this sinister business’. The roots of this clash have been traced back to the era of colonialism, which resulted in the fragmentation of nations and the rise of geopolitics based on economic interests.

Section Three discusses the counter measures taken by Muslim intellectuals with respect to journalism and awareness building. The contributors to this section—Robin Jeffrey, Ather Farouqui and Maulana Waheeduddin Khan—hold the demise of the Muslim journalistic temper, particularly of the Urdu media, to be a direct consequence of the relegation of Urdu to the background of cultural change. Robin Jeffery statistically analyzes Urdu journalism in India and the direction in which it is headed, vividly portraying the decline of the Urdu press:

‘Urdu in Perso-Arabic, however, has a predicament: the social factors that ensure its survival—primarily the madrassa education available to Muslim children--have so far limited its potential as a vehicle for capitalism.’

Its heavy dependence on madrassa education makes Urdu the language of Muslims, which means that publishers in Urdu produce magazines and newspapers geared overwhelmingly to Muslim interests and particularly aimed at cultivating madrassa alumni. Since major advertisers regard Muslims as poorest community, there is some bias involved in the attitude of business houses, which hesitate to commit large sums of advertising money to the Urdu media.

Ather Farouqui traces the decline of Urdu and Muslim journalism to the selfish interests of Muslim intellectuals and the overdependence of poor Muslim families on madrassa education owing to government policies that have been influenced by language politics in . He believes that Urdu journalism in post-Independence has failed to live up to the expectations of the Muslim populace. This is due to reasons: ‘…inherent in the nature and character of the Urdu readership, as well as because of the political and economic proclivities of individual Urdu journalists and their links to political parties. Urdu journalism has more often than not been prone to reinforcing a sectarian and emotional outlook among readers. At any rate, Urdu journalism has often disturbed Muslim positions on substantial issues of concern to the community.’

The book concludes with the cultural aspect in two essays—by Moinuddin Jinabade and John W. Hood—of the agents who have helped to strengthen the stereotypical image of the Muslims. Since cinema is a strong medium of social change, Jinabade has argued that Muslims are repeatedly caricatured. Writing on the same theme, Hood’s is a very compelling piece. In a discussion on films one is immediately reminded of Anita Desai’s acclaimed novel In Custody, which is the basis of Ismail Merchant’s film with the same title in English, and Muhafiz, in Urdu. Unfortunately, both the novel and the film are oversimplifications, portraying Muslims and the literary tradition of Urdu and the Urdu-speaking community in an extremely poor light. Undoubtedly, stereotyping in Indian films is not limited just to Muslims, but Muslims are certainly its worst victims. A Wednesday is the first refreshing effort by popular media in recent years that attempts to analyze the issue of the relationship between Muslims and terrorism.

The oversimplification and caricature of Muslims has invaded even the most popular mode of mass communication—television—with no Muslim family being depicted in popular Indian soap operas. It is as if the entire Muslim population of exists on the fringes of civilization, relegated to identities as pickpockets and bicycle thieves. Hood has also assessed parallel cinema where quality productions depict Muslim characters as normal people. Nevertheless, such films are few and far between and are inadequate to counter the shoddy images in popular cinema.

The book, which falls in the category of a must-read work, is Farouqui’s tribute to the residues of sanity that have so far held out against an overwhelming propaganda. Cause and effect apart, the pluralistic structure of the world is at a crossroads, and an analytical work of this kind will issue a credible challenge to negative impressions. It also urges Muslims to look around themselves and identify the anomalies that plague their community. Civil society requires that contradictions and conflicts within society be dealt within a civilized manner and be analyzed objectively.